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Cruz, Obama agree on mission to Mars

Cruz, Obama agree on mission to Mars
© Greg Nash

You may have to go to Mars to find common ground between Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzFormer OMB pick Neera Tanden to serve as senior adviser to Biden Seth Rogen says he's not in a feud with 'fascist' Ted Cruz, whose 'words caused people to die' GOP votes to replace Cheney with Stefanik after backing from Trump MORE (R-Texas) and President Obama.

Cruz broadly ripped Obama’s Tuesday State of the Union address for doubling down “on the failed policies of the last six years” and ignoring the message of “the crushing electoral losses in the midterm elections.”

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But Obama’s call for a manned mission to Mars met with Cruz’s cautious approval. As chairman of the Commerce subcommittee on Science and Space, the freshman conservative is a central player in the debate.

“I think we need to get back to NASA’s core mission of space exploration and manned space flight, and that includes the full range from the moon to Mars and beyond,” he said. “I look forward to the science and space [subcommittee] holding hearings to assess the various options for space exploration and the resources and time commitments required for each.”

But Cruz questioned whether Obama’s vision for a Mars mission is sincere given what he called the administration’s “devaluing of space exploration, devaluing of the hard sciences and diverting both funds and manpower to extraneous political agendas.”

Other conservatives are skeptical about making Mars a priority when the economy is just beginning to recover from a long period of sluggish growth, and federal spending remains a concern.

Space.com reported in 2012 that NASA estimated a manned mission to Mars could cost about $100 billion over 30 or 40 years. Those costs would be defrayed, however, if international partners share the burden.

Obama told the joint session of Congress Tuesday, “Last month, we launched a new spacecraft as part of a reenergized space program that will send American astronauts to Mars.”

NASA’s new spacecraft, the Orion, made its inaugural mission in December, orbiting Earth twice in the span of 4 hours and 23 minutes. The agency intends to use the program to send astronauts to an asteroid and eventually to Mars.

Some on the right dismissed Obama’s plans.

“There must be a macro that you hit on a computer that types out once a year some wild space idea that goes into the State of the Union address,” said Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Republican reactions to Cheney's removal Flake: No greater offense than honesty in today's Republican Party Cheney set to be face of anti-Trump GOP MORE (R-Ariz.).

“It strikes at a disconnect from where most Americans are. They don’t feel the economy is working for them and Washington is working for them. The president is talking about sending a man to Mars. It’s understandable why people are frustrated with Washington after stuff like that,” said Dan Holler, the communications director at Heritage Action for America. 

“I was dumbfounded when I heard that,” he added.  

While Cruz might not endear himself with some conservatives by supporting a more ambitious space program, it would be good for Texas, home to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

“It definitely could have a big impact on Texas, Florida and Alabama. This is a major program. Perhaps the most significant program we’ve ever done,” said Chris Carberry, executive director of Explore Mars Inc., a nonprofit organization advocating for missions to Mars.

Cruz acknowledged the potential benefit to Texas in a recent press release, saying, “Our space program marks the frontier of future technologies for defense, communications, transportation and more.”

Sen. Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsOne quick asylum fix: How Garland can help domestic violence survivors Biden fills immigration court with Trump hires Trump admin got phone records of WaPo reporters covering Russia probe: report MORE (R), a conservative whose home state of Alabama also stands to benefit, defended the Mars proposal.

“I don’t think it’s a waste of money,” he said. “The United States has led the world in space exploration, and I think we should continue that.”

NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center is based in Huntsville, Ala. 

Carberry said NASA’s budget would need to be boosted over the next decade to accomplish Obama’s goal but argued it would not require a major increase in federal spending.

“It’s not as all-encompassing from a budget perspective as going to the moon,” he said.

Explore Mars Inc. has run workshops with the program’s stakeholders to “figure out if it can be done affordably,” Carberry said.

Sending a man to Mars has been a dream of several presidents, most recently former President George W. Bush. He unveiled a plan in 2004 to return to the moon by 2020, with a longer-term goal of visiting Mars. He proposed spending $12 billion over a five-year span to meet the goal.

Obama backed away from the idea when he took office, but after receiving pushback from advocates of space exploration, he relented by proposing in 2010 a manned mission to orbit Mars by the mid-2030s followed by a manned landing on the red planet.

Read more from The Hill:

Mars mission moving at the speed of Congress